Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Hanging with the horns onstage at the Florida Orchestra

There was something inherently fascinating, downright voyeuristic, in peering over the shoulder of a regal French horn player, clad in a crisp tuxedo, as he emptied his spit valve over and over again. Thwapp! I couldn't look away — except when I was spying on a clarinetist as she quickly swapped reeds and flipped sheet music mere seconds before her next entrance in Dvorak's Symphony No. 8. A few feet away, I was a nervous wreck (hurry it up, lady!). She, however, was flawless.

How did I get onstage with the Florida Orchestra in St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater, tucked behind the second violins, close enough to feel the hum of the instruments? In a bold move to raise funds and seduce younger fans, the Florida Orchestra is offering onstage seating to lookie-loos curious to see how the symphonic sausage is made.

How close are you? Let's just say you do not want to sneeze.

If onstage seating sounds like a very modern up-sell — the theme-parking of classical music — you're right. "The catalyst was to try and find a way to make more money, if you want to know the truth," says Bob Shuck, a member the Florida Orchestra's board of directors who admits to being skeptical when onstage seating was first brought up.

Rock concerts and plays have long invited the hoi polloi onstage, but the Florida Orchestra, along with the Charlotte Symphony, is the rare classic ensemble in the United States to try it. Only one-third of money raised by the Florida Orchestra comes through ticket sales; the rest is donations. Onstage seating, at $75 per ticket, could help that, Shuck says.

How do the musicians enjoy having a big nosy dude like me invading their work space?

"I, for one, think it's really cool," said French horn player Cindy Wulff, a visiting musician from Cleveland. "We have to do something to bring the audience closer to the musicians."

Slight feelings of intrusion aside — an interloper in the house of Haydn! — I found the on-stage experience to be captivating, the rare visceral chance to witness the inner-workings of such a sublime ensemble (and totally snoop on one of the horn players who kept a crossword puzzle next to his sheet music).

I'm not a rabid classical music fan, but I was nevertheless drawn to the human side, watching extremely serious, intimidating musicians sweat and heave, smile and fret.

When you're sitting in the theater, you can't always see the gesticulations and contortions of the conductor. During a Saturday performance of Elgar's Cello Concerto, guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen was a constantly moving, sweet-faced marvel. But only we, the onstagers could see that.

Etiquette guidelines are enforced. The dress code is business formal; leave your ratty Ozzy concert tee at home. "When the orchestra starts tuning, it would be good to stop the talking," instructed Sherry Powell, the orchestra's director of marketing, who escorted 11 of us on and off the stage. No selfies or smartphone shenanigans, either.

"And don't fall asleep!" laughed board member Shuck, who was also seated onstage.

The drawbacks are few but substantial. It can get hot under the lights, especially in suits, ties, evening wear. If you need to use the restroom, prepare to hold it until intermission, when you'll be ushered to the VIP lounge for drinks and snacks. If you get stage fright, this experience might be unnerving.

Although the sound is sublime, violoncello soloist James Connors could only be heard, not seen. "I like to see the soloist," said fellow onstager Gayle Bertelstein. "But you can hear the individual sections of the orchestra better. Sometimes you can't hear the woodwinds that clearly."

Onstage seating is available for select "Masterworks" programs at the Mahaffey, Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater and the Straz Center in Tampa. The "Bravo Beethoven!" show, Jan. 10-12, is up next, when 48 onstage seats will be available over the course of three concerts.

Oh, and fair warning: It can get BLARING back there.

"Was it loud enough for you?" laughed Wulff, checking on me after the show. "When you sit on that side of the French horns, it can be a dangerous thing."

Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected]

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